The Perfect Heart Parable

By Rev. Jon Turner

I have learned a lot about Buddhism by attending yoga courses with my wife Linda.  We began by taking classes together as students. Linda then completed her teacher training and is now a fully certified yoga instructor.  She teaches at OCBC on Monday nights and at other local studios during the week. She is my Yoga sensei three classes a week. Now I attend as her student.

Over the years I have noticed a close relationship between Yoga and Buddhism.  Yoga is older than Buddhism and has had quite an influence on Buddhism. It is even suggested that some of the Buddha’s own practices from age 29 to 35 included elements from Yoga.  In the United States, Yoga is often thought of as a Hindu practice but it also predates Hinduism. It might be better to think of Yoga as a foundational practice that influenced both Hinduism and Buddhism.  Both of these developed out of the philosophical assumptions and practices of Yoga.

This mingling of traditions is quite prevalent in the various Yoga studios I have visited.  The statues, symbols and books available in the gift shops represent all three of these traditions.  There are Yoga sutras, Buddhist statues and Hindu OM symbols. Scholars sometimes refer to this admixture phenomenon as Creole-ism.  During a Yoga class you may hear a quote from the famous Yoga teacher B. K. S. Iyengar, then another from the Dalai Lama and finally a closing message from Mahatma Gandhi.  It seems the lines of sectarianism have been intentionally blurred in order to learn from each of these great traditions. Often times I have trouble noticing where one ends and the other begins.

I would like to share one such example.  It is called The Perfect Heart Parable.  It is a wonderful story that I recently heard as it has meandered through the various Yoga studios in the area. The author of the parable is unknown.  Its provenance is cloudy. It may be ancient or contemporary. It could be Indian or New Age. Nevertheless, its appeal is quite strong.

The parable is about a young man who is quite proud of his heart.  It is perfectly symmetric, without a ding or dent. It has never been damaged in anyway. This young man boasts and brags about his pristine heart.  He often shows it off in the town square. Hundreds gather to view his heart from a far.

Suddenly, an old man appears from out of the crowd.  He tells the young man that his heart is not nearly as beautiful as his.  The crowd gathers around the old man and sees that his heart is quite strong but it is scarred and damaged in many places.  There are even pieces missing here and there – even a chunk or two. There are even a few places that were repaired with pieces from another’s heart.  It also didn’t quite all fit together as it should.

The young man laughed and said, “You must be joking.  Compare your heart with mine, mine is perfect and yours is a mess of scars and tears.”  The old man had to agree.  It was a mess. But the old man explained that every scare, tear and piece were the result of sharing his heart with others.  He often gave a piece of his heart to those he loved and in turn he received a piece from them. The pieces didn’t quite fit but these rough edges represent the risks one takes when we open our hearts to others.  

At that moment, the young man realized that he had been holding his heart too closely.  He should have been sharing it with others. How sad it would be to go through life with a whole untouched heart.  The old man and the young man then hugged. As the young man walked away he noticed a flaw in his young, perfect heart.  He began to cry tears of joy. He had shared his heart and was the better for it. Now his flawed heart was truly beautiful.  This is how the story ends.

As a Buddhist, this story shows the importance of sharing one’s heart with another.  When we truly connect with others it is often beyond words. When that bond is broken it really does feel like you have lost a piece of yourself.  But the solution is not to protect your heart but instead to open it up further. A woman once told me that her dog of twelve years had suddenly died.  She said that was the most difficult event in her life and that she would never get another dog again because of it.

But I think that is the wrong lesson.  I think people who feel that much loss are actually very lucky to have been that close to another.  Grief is usually seen as a negative but I think it is a wonderful gift. We are very lucky to have known that rare someone who was able to touch our hearts that deeply and, for this woman, there is another dog out there somewhere waiting to do just that.

A beautiful heart is not the one that has been protected from others.  It is instead the one that has been freely and deeply shared. This is the lesson that the young man was able to learn from the old man.  

I am not sure who “owns” this story but it resonates across all three Indian traditions of Yoga, Buddhism and Hinduism – in many of the Yoga studios across America.   So please take your new heart out on New Year’s Day and share it with others. Let’s make that our New Year’s resolution.

In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner